Harmonica Wizard Terry McMillan Dead at 53

Toured, Recorded With Top Country, Pop Stars

Ace harmonica player and percussionist Terry Lee McMillan died Friday (Feb. 2) at his home in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., following a long illness. He was 53. A spokesman for the funeral home handling the services said the family has declined to specify the exact cause of death.

McMillan was born Oct. 12, 1953, in Lexington, N.C., and began his professional music career in the early 1970s. Early on, he toured as a member of Eddy Raven’s band. In 1975, he went on the road with Chet Atkins. After stints backing Jeannie C. Riley and Jerry Reed, McMillan turned his attention to playing recording sessions. Although a gifted drummer and percussionist, he gained his reputation in the studio for his distinctive harmonica style. He won the Academy of Country Music’s musician of the year award in its specialty instrument category for four consecutive years beginning in 1993.

In the early 1980s, McMillan signed with RCA Records as a solo act, but his tenure at the label was short-lived. His only charted single, “Love Is a Full Time Thing,” peaked at No. 85 in 1982.

McMillan’s earliest recording sessions were with Mickey Newbury, Steve Young, Elvis Presley, Marshall Chapman, Ray Charles and J J. Cale. He subsequently performed on TV specials with Neil Young, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and Chet Atkins among others. Intermittently, he returned to the road with such artists as Larry Carlton, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Michael McDonald. McMillan’s harmonica work is prominently featured on Brooks’ 1993 hit, “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up).”

After his family’s house was destroyed in a 1992 house fire, McMillan became a devout Christian and focused extensively on inspirational music. In 1993, he released his first album, I’ve Got a Feeling, on Step One Records. He also released an album for Giant Records, Somebody’s Comin’, in 1997. In the years that followed, he became a frequent guest on Christian television programs.

“In 1993,” according to Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, “[McMillan] was chosen … to be a member of [a band] that performed at President Clinton’s Arkansas inaugural ball. The rest of the band was Michael McDonald, Bruce Hornsby, Kenny Loggins, Carole King and Judy Collins. [McMillan] played a standout version of ’Amazing Grace’ on the harmonica.”

He is survived by his wife, three children, a stepchild, two grandchildren, his father and a brother.

Funeral services will be held Wednesday (Feb. 7) at Atchley Funeral Home in Sevierville, Tenn. Burial will be in Smoky Mountain Memory Gardens.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.